You see compression clothing everywhere these days, from the dance studio, to the football field - but does it really work? And how does it work? Kinesiology researcher, and Director of The Running Injury Clinic, Dr Reed Ferber weighs in on what the science actually says.
Compression clothing has quickly become a piece of “need to have” gear for improved performance, injury prevention, and injury rehabilitation. With core shorts being introduced in 2005 by a BC physiotherapist, the main purpose is to “utilize a series of strategically angled elastics to produce anatomically correct compression shorts.” Since then, there has been an explosion of different compression socks, full-leg, and short-type garments and there’s a lot of mis-information floating around there. So what is the science behind running with compression clothing?
First, it’s important to realize that there have been absolutely no research studies investigating whether compression gear, of any kind, can help prevent or treat an injury. Any such claims are simply based on marketing. That’s not to say that there may not be some potential benefit. One study, which involved military athletes, reported reduced muscle oscillation (let’s call it tissue jiggle) during jump landing and while running when wearing full-leg compression clothing.
Decreased oscillation can reduce oxygen and elastic demand to the muscle and is thought to aid in injury recovery. However, this study involved healthy military recruits so how reduced oscillation translates to reduced injuries cannot be answered. Certainly though, how a piece of compression clothing helps to prevent an injury is a complex problem and one worthy of attention from the research community.
Most research has centered on whether compression gear can help improve sprint and endurance running performance. One study from New Zealand and Australia looked at 400m-sprint performance for a group of 11 male athletes. Each sprinter performed six runs. Two of the runs were completed while wearing either full-leg compression garments, short-length compression garments with compression socks, or no compression clothing. No differences in sprint time, 100m-split time, heart rate, blood lactate, or perceived soreness were found across the three conditions. However, there was a trend towards improved blood lactate clearance (how quickly lactic acid is moved out of your muscles) and a reduced perceived effort when wearing the full-leg compression garment. A handful of other sprint-studies have reported similar results.
With respect to longer distances, one study involved 25 rugby players who performed two, 30 minute treadmill runs, with and without full-leg compression gear. Every five minutes the intensity (speed and incline) was increased and blood lactate and pH (acid balance) were measured. Overall, no differences in pH were found but a small decrease in lactate concentrations, similar to the previously mentioned sprint study, were measured. In a similar study, 11 elite runners were monitored while running at 90% of their VO2 max and while wearing full-leg compression gear as compared to a control condition of loose shorts. Overall, no differences in oxygen consumption, tissue oxygenation, lactate concentration, or heart rate were measured.
So, the few studies that have investigated the effect of compression clothing on sprinting and endurance running, have reported modest-to-no effect in terms of physiological measures and overall performance times.
Finally, I’ll interject some of my own hypotheses and opinions. Entering the term “compression clothing” into the National Library of Medicine returns only 15 research studies. Of those studies, less than half were well-controlled scientific investigations and I’ve discussed most of them in this article. So clearly research needs to be conducted to help you, the runner, understand the pros and cons. Based on the paucity of research, I’ll state that if you think compression clothing helps your run – wear it! As I’ve said many times in previous articles, the root cause of running injuries is complex and cannot simply be prevented or resolved by any one piece of clothing, shoe, or strengthening exercise. Be body-aware and experience the joy of running – while wearing a piece of clothing that prevents tissue jiggle or not… your choice.
Dr. Reed Ferber PhD, CAT(C)
The Running Injury Clinic is a world-leader in running-related research. We are currently conducting a large study on injury prevention for older runners. If you’re a 55-75 year-old runner in the Calgary area and want to participate, please contact us.